Google, The Portal, in New Land Grab

The portal wars are back! This time around, perennial winner Google isn't battling it out with Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and, er, Excite and Snap.

Rather, it's left with the rather easier task of sucking the oxygen out of the rooms vertical players like Zillow try to breathe in, and then battling any potential public image drawbacks to its growing status as a vertical-devouring meanie.

In the wake of Google's entry into the aggregation of property listings, Hitwise's Heather Hopkins notes the importance of the vertical: last week, 2% of Google traffic was sent off to listings in the real estate industry.

This brings up the potential contradictions and disingenuousness of the search engines' efforts to tout the merits of what's being called Universal or Blended search. The "death of the ten blue links" is a sexy way of dismissing clunky old search results pages and opening the door to a new age of more context-sensitive search results, to be sure. But when directly asked if the strategy isn't a way to keep more users on their own properties rather than sending them to those "downstream" sites Hopkins et al. spend their careers following, the search engines generally indicate something to the effect that they would never contemplate such a thing, or would "weigh these decisions in light of what's best for the user." Perhaps. But as predicted, Google's moves into blended search have done little to increase traffic (for example) for any video streaming site but YouTube. You can often extend that principle to other elements of these blends.

As Hopkins notes astutely: "The real question for Real Estate websites is whether (and when) property listings will be included in the search engine results page on Google.com." The search engines have plenty of alibis handy for their land grab behaviors -- for example, they've built out a variety of metasearch and aggregation models (such as Google Video and Yahoo Video) that offer due credit to a variety of third party providers. But the real power comes from that first page of SERP's -- the ones we keep such close watch on with heat maps and Google Analytics referral statistics (when they do refer traffic downstream, that is). Google isn't sending you from Google.com to some other provider of news headlines; it's sending you to Google News.

The powerful utility of the new tools tends to soften the fact that the major search engines are essentially moving back to a walled garden concept reminiscent of the old AOL, minus the wall and the subscription fee.

In the meantime, data providers are left with difficult choices: do I give all of this data/power to large centralized players with little hope of a formal agreement, let alone any explicit conversation or setting of positive expectations about outcomes? (In the tradition of Google Base and the public relations strategy around that: "Here it is. It's really important. Go nuts.") It's this ambiguity that has led more observers to refer to Google as little more than another "scraper site".

Ironically, such accusations are sometimes levelled by the purveyors of similar quasi-scraper schemes. It takes one to know one. In real estate as in so many verticals, any land grab is going to be reminiscent of a scene from Goodfellas. Arguably, though, sites like Zillow have made great headway in connecting personably and directly with homeowners; encouraging them to voluntarily join in an information exchange and convincing them persuasively of that benefit. Google has done nothing of the sort.

At the end of the day, I think (hope?) the search engines recognize the dangers inherent in leaving originating data sources and content providers devoid of traffic and income, so it is a matter of how much traffic they continue to send along to third party vertical players, rather than being an all-or-nothing scenario. Taken too far, companies that purport to be dialed into their core competency in "search" -- the implied mission being to send traffic downstream to originating content providers who've made heavy investments in content and community -- would morph back into walled-garden, AOL-thinking portals.

Gian Fulgoni, Where Have You Been?

Really, it's not becoming my favorite thing to name names in headlines. But in light of Mr. Fulgoni's deliberate (if lighthearted) provocations of online "direct response" lovers, we must fight fire with fire. Or at least, on this statutory holiday, fireworks with fireworks.

When I read that comScore founder Gian Fulgoni yesterday told eMarketer that the "preoccupation with direct response" is "partly a response to so many young people being involved in Internet advertising," I nearly fell off my Big Wheel.

I suggest a different reason for clicks and sales conversions as key metrics in the marketing and advertising industry: they're objective. Much like:

  • The radar gun that tells the police officer you've been driving 20mph over the limit, in response to your opening salvo: "...but I was just having a nice, zippy day."
  • The 7.5 second time in the 40-metre dash that tells the college coaches that your son has zero chance to become a wide receiver at that level, let alone the pros, as opposed to "my boy has a big heart -- as big as they come!";
  • The growth in net profit that helps investors decide whether or not to buy Comscore (SCOR) stock;
  • The thermometer and hygrometer that tell your furnace, air conditioner, and dehumidifier/humidifier when to turn on and off;
  • Countless other measures of obvious stuff.
If measures of "brand lift" also prove useful, then so be it. But the interest in measuring the more obvious stuff didn't get dreamt up by some imaginary cabal of literal-minded rave-going Youth. Rather, it appears to be an unholy alliance among people called Clients (the ones with the dollars to spend on more measurable digital media channels, who by the way got burned by brand-speak in Bubble I in 1998-2000); Web Analysts and the inventors of tracking methods, software, etc.; and Customers (who often use online tools like search and classifieds to avoid being bombarded with off-topic commercial messages). The Designers of the Medium Itself (eg. Tim Berners-Lee) and the surfing tools people use to access the medium (eg. Lynx, Netscape) created something called Standards and Conventions that created Expectations in Users, later codified and explicated by the Usability Gods.

Performance-based media? Clients ask for it by name. Customers don't shrink from it. Perhaps that's why upwards of 60% of online ad spend goes to the combination of search and classifieds/local.

If we're going to tout the benefits of "all of the other media that impact a person's psyche," then shouldn't we hold them to account as well as singing their praises -- specifically pointing to their enormous cost, and at least attempting to measure the benefit?

On a serious note: online, there is still a shortage of the types of quality places to engage customers, to start conversations, and to (without making them rebel) place decent "demand creation" messages. Then again, are we conceiving of "online" too narrowly? A celebrity touting a hot new camera will find herself on TV ads and billboards at the ball park. But in my mind, those are all potentially "digital, measurable, targeted, and auction-efficient" media channels.

Creating new kinds of (digital and measurable) demand-creation media spaces isn't as easy as it looks, perhaps because of the conventions and expectations cited above. Nor is it impossible. The Internet isn't TV. It really isn't. That does not, of course, mean that we should close off innovative conversations about what digital might become.

Why Razorfish Divestiture Now?

Back in 2007, we briefly reviewed the major M&A activity in the digital ad serving technology and digital agency spaces. Many of our panel observers felt that Google and Microsoft should immediately divest themselves of the agency parts of the DoubleClick/Performics and Aquantive/Razorfish acquisitions, to clear out some of the conflict of interest inherent in major agencies owned by the sellers of supposedly performance-based, impartial media platforms.

Google moved relatively quickly to divest itself of Performics, whereas Microsoft held onto the Razorfish business -- until now.

Amazingly, the $6 billion acquisition of Aquantive counted as Microsoft's biggest ever acquisition. Considering its size and clout, Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish) has had a relatively quiet two years since then. Perhaps this can be chalked up to this mega-agency's DNA; its first go-round in Bubble 1.0 was in the fast-hiring, website-overbuilding, overvaluation heyday of 1995-2000. And the company still seems to favor slow-loading, expensive-to-build, semi-indexable pages. Like ALPO, a recent client win for Razorfish, could it be that Razorfish represents a previous era of overpackaged, overstrategized goods with the same old ALPO inside the can?

While some may ask why Microsoft is selling this business, Daily Finance reporter Douglas McIntyre proffers: "What it is doing with the company in the first place is anybody's guess."

Certainly, if the long delay in selling Razorfish was helpful in demonstrating that Microsoft's decision-making process was totally independent of industry opinion that they should divest sooner, the delay was effective. Unfortunately, the value of the asset may now be sharply reduced. But so are many assets... such as the parts of Yahoo Microsoft is still considering strategically partnering with or buying.

Click Fraud Perps: Kudos to Microsoft

Microsoft has gotten us one step closer to the hard-line Traffick stance of jail time for click fraud. Making money by directly yanking money out of advertiser pockets in industries like auto insurance must have felt very good to these alleged fraudsters: until the day they were slapped with a $750,000 lawsuit. Ouch.

Upstream and Downstream Clicks: It’s All About the Google (and a little bit about Yahoo)

A lot of ink gets spilled about everything digital media. And some wonder why those of us in the search side of the industry are, well, a little bit... noisy.

You can see why by visiting Alexa (or if you have a subscription, a service like Hitwise). For your favorite site, check out the tab called "Clickstream". The website that is most visited prior to visiting your favorite site is, of course, Google.

It might look like:

23% Google.com
10% Google.ca

Or it might look like:

15% Google.com
8% Some other site.

Or in some other cases Yahoo actually is still key (though not necessarily Yahoo Search):

12% Google
11% Yahoo

And the "post visit" clicks are also (although, hopefully, less so) to these search engines as well. Users either go back to the search engine right away due to search dissatisfaction, or they use a search engine for something else, after they're finished with one task.

Other common upstream and downstream sites are site closely related to your favorite site, like

icanhazcheezburger.com
pga.com
etc.

Or functionally related ones like:

sphinn.com
wordpress.com
youtube.com

Or, increasingly,

twitter.com

as people tweet what they find.

For some popular sites like cuteoverload.com, Twitter is hitting 2 and 3 per cent of post-visit visits. For this blog, Traffick.com, Twitter clocks in at an amazing 10% of downstream visits!

Still though, Google is at the top of pretty much every list of upstream and downstream clicks for pretty much any website.

Bing.com? The bad news is, the site is too new and too little-used to show up in many upstream lists at all. The good news? Downstream, it shows up in the list for blogs like this, and tech industry publications. Microsoft will need much more than mentions from the likes of us, though, to gain market share.

Google to Hand a Huge Opportunity to Twitter?

Remember how Yahoo helped Google rise to prominence, then dominance, ultimately obliterating the search and portal brand that gave it that timely helping hand? If you've been in the industry less than five years, you don't. In 2001, Google's future was still far from assured. But the power its brand gained during its two-year partnership to display Google results on Yahoo did serious damage to Yahoo's brand, and bought Google the credibility it needed to move to top-of-mind as the world's leading search engine.

Is Google about to do the same favor to Twitter? On the surface, it seems that adding microblogging search capability that features mostly Twitter results would only benefit Google, by giving it equal or superior capability to the as-yet-to-be-honed Twitter Search. Another feature to solidify the world's leading search brand. So as for whether this helps Twitter do to Google what Google did to Yahoo: probably not. Google today is far more than Yahoo was in 2002-2004. Still, it's interesting to contemplate the possibility that a deal that looks only so-so for Twitter might have a salutary effect on Twitter's already strong brand, and turn out to be the mainstream exposure they needed to go from hot to white-hot.

SES Toronto in Words, Pictures, Video, and Tweets

Even in a down economy, or perhaps because of it, companies are investing more than ever in performance-based digital marketing. So it's perhaps no surprise that the SES Toronto conference turned in another strong performance this week. I was delighted that so many of the top speakers (too many to name here, really... ok... Mark Evans, Keith Boswell...Miriam Warren... ok I'm stopping...) we invited were able to make it. And if I do say so myself, the tracks (Nuts & Bolts, Corporateville, and Geek) seemed to be working well in getting folks connected with the type of knowledge they need in this fast-moving field.

The demands on marketers have begun to change more rapidly as reputation management, social media, and universal, personalized, blended, local, and mobile search have created a much wider array of relevancy signals and visibility channels. While introducing newcomers to the basics, the theme of the show was intended to expose us to data and debates about what's new in the field. I feel that companies that opt not to show up to these events - especially those constructing digital marketing plans from scratch - may be failing to ask the right questions in planning. It's too easy to fall into the trap of micromanaging tactics based on 2002 assumptions, on one hand, or to concoct hip-sounding but amateurish attempts to bust into social media (the Meatball Sundae syndrome).

For a quick flavor of how the conference went for some, we offer for your consideration a list of tweets about SES Toronto 2009; some of the SES Toronto interviews posted on YouTube; and a selection of the pictorial evidence on Flickr.

Our keynote speakers, Tara Hunt and Emanuel Rosen (who just tweeted that Toronto is now his favorite city in North America!), deserve special thanks for helping us "anchor" digital marketing in real-world reality. Search engines measure relationships and relevance, but in the past have done a poor job of it. Marketers who only focus on the tactics suited to imperfect search technology from the past fail to see the need to create a variety of connections and authentic social capital upon which strong referrals are built.

The opening night party at The Drake Hotel (Acquisio sponsoring, with co-sponsors Page Zero and NVI Solutions) must have been good, too. MJ Lepage of Acquisio (pictured here) convinced me to speak French. I was shy at first, but those Acquisio t-shirts have amazing powers of persuasion.